Why You Do It Matters

There was a line on the McDonald’s job application last time I applied, after the personality test that asks eight times if you are always happy. Why do you want to work here? It’s clear that you will need a reason besides “I’m hungry and want money.”

I think that line sums up the problem with industrial society in a nut shell.

“Get a job.”

It starts when someone says, “get a job.” It’s all bound up with guilt and fear. You think, “If I don’t get a job soon, I’ll never make money, I’ll starve. Everyone will think I’m irresponsible and useless.” Panic. You race to the first place hiring working stiffs that you can think of.

There is no place in “get a job” for who you are, or what you are good at, or the unique value you offer the world. “Get a job” is satisfied only by an input of dollar bills as soon as possible.

The Hiring Department

The company gets thousands of applicants for menial jobs every day. It is a huge, efficient machine. Menial workers are like screws – they fit in a hole and are easily replaceable – so the company uses a computer programs to sort out all the applicants.

Somewhere there was a meeting, and a team was tasked with making a program to select the personality of the perfect worker. Someone decided that it would be a good idea for the perfect worker to be happy. Someone decided they would need a good reason to work. Each person on the team was just doing their job.

Menial Service

Anyone who goes to fast food places late at night knows that the majority of people who are paid to do menial work don’t do it well. You have to say, “No ketchup” slowly, two or three times, and you will still probably get ketchup. The food will be cold, and the person who takes your order will probably shout at you in a tone that suggests you ordered possum on a stick.

The company knows this. They know the menial screws in the machine don’t really care and can’t really be inspired to do great work. They accept this. It’s not worth paying them decently. They also know that the customer will keep coming back, because they have great commercials.

Oh The Humanity!

The thing about humans is that we need things that have meaning. We care deeply, passionately, and unconsciously about why we do what we do. (Thank you Ian, for pointing me to How Great Leaders Inspire Action, which is actually about why everything turns on Why).

The customer wants decent food, fairly fast, from decent people. Mostly he wants to feel full and warm. He doesn’t need perfect food from eternally happy zombies.

“The company” is made of people who just want to do their jobs, live in a nice place, and give their family some security. It’s their job to translate ‘happy worker’ into a numeric screening exam. They know from marketing class that why matters, and want to choose workers who care.

Only they don’t control whether the work actually is good. The quality of the food at 3 am comes down to the decisions of those menial cogs in the machine.

Which brings us back to our friend desperately trying to get a job.

Suppose he get it. Even if he is the happiest of people, he knows that sometimes, he is not happy (unless he has serious brain damage). So he has already lied. The system has told him blithely and powerfully that no unique human beings are welcome. Only happy zombies.

So whether the food is decent, whether the worker is awake, and whether he retains his humanity, despite of all forces to the contrary, depends on why he does his work. Does he believe that giving weary travelers warm meals is an act of love? Or does he believe no one will like him unless he makes a few dollars?

Back up

Wait, lets ask a different question. What should he believe?

Do you want to live in a world where desperate, frightened people get jobs making and selling crap to other people to make a few bucks? Would you rather be desperate and frightened, or buy crap?

No, is a good answer.

Lets live in a world where people do work that they believe in. So people work at fast food places out of a sense of love, pride, and service. Hell, maybe they even sell healthy food.

Of Scullery Maids and World Leaders

There is nothing wrong with doing the drudgery. Drudgery can be something you do with pride and love. But it depends on you to put the meaning in it.

There is something wrong with doing drudgery out of fear.

The problem is that the entire machine is powered by little cogs who allow themselves to be used to create crap, because they are afraid, and more importantly, because they forgot that what means something to them matters.

There are also world leaders who create crap, out of greed or fear or love of power. Sure.

There is no guarantee either way. Big people and small people can all easily produce crap if they do it for the wrong reasons.

The people who do something that matters in the world do it because they believe in something better. They care. They put meaning and purpose in their work, and even when they are scared, they fight for what matters.

The Great Problem with Industrial Society

The problem is that capitalism is about efficient mass production. It employs humans, makes them into cogs, and produces the cheapest for the most. And it does it really well.

It just forgets, blithely and powerfully, that we are human. First and foremost, we love meaning. We need meaningful work. And meaning can’t be mass produced, screened for, or tied to a particular act.

Meaning is made by little people who decide for themselves that what they value, what they love, and what they believe in matters. Why matters. Then, even though the world calls them wrong, they stand behind it.

That’s how the world gets better. And without it, the world gets worse.

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